Kentucky schools, where an “A” might not really be an “A”

I wrote a few days ago about new research from the Kentucky Department of Education that compares average mathematics letter grades to performance on Kentucky’s math assessments.

That initial blog discusses the fact that Kentucky’s children of color are generally getting higher letter grades for math than white students receive for similar test score performance.

Today, I expand on that with another graph from the recently released “The State of P-12 Education in the Commonwealth of Kentucky.” This new graph compares the overall average math grades for all high school students to the probability the students are really ready for college math. The test measure is the ACT college entrance test, and the ACT readiness score has been set by the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education (CPE) as a rather undemanding low of 19.

The Kentucky Department of Education says the figures used to generate the graph are for average performances across 2012 to 2016 data.

High School Grades Vs CPE ACT Benchmarks for All Students

There are some disturbing things in this graph.

The far right side of the graph provides evidence that even consistently scoring an “A” in Kentucky public high school math courses provides no guarantee of real math readiness. Less than 75 percent of the students who averaged an “A” in their high school math courses were also able to pass muster against the undemanding ACT target set by the CPE.

Things get more bothersome quickly as we move down the grade scale. Even for those students averaging a “B” in math, the picture is pretty grim. Fewer than one in two of those students are likely to meet the low requirement set by the CPE. For students with still lower math grades, the odds of surviving college math look pretty gruesome.

By the way, while the CPE says an ACT math score of 19 is good enough to avoid remedial coursework in college, the ACT says that a notably higher math score of 22 is actually needed to have at least a 75 percent chance of getting at least a “C” in the lower-level college math course of algebra.

In Kentucky’s public postsecondary system, a grade point average below 2.0 (generally a “C” average) will not allow graduation.

We often hear that high school grade point averages are better predictors of college performance than other factors like ACT scores. That correlation might have been true in the past, but when grading in Kentucky’s public school system today seems in too many cases to vary widely from real performances needed to succeed, this old rule of thumb might not be true anymore.

In any event, parents beware. Just because your kid gets an “A,” don’t think you are home free. There are plenty of stories of “A” students arriving on campus only to discover that they are not ready for college level math. Sometimes, that shock is more than our kids today can handle. And, based on this new research from the Kentucky Department of Education, it looks like there is plenty of room for even “A” students to get some very unpleasant surprises upon college entry.

Tonight: Bluegrass Institute president joins panel discussion fake news and the news media

LEXINGTON — The Bluegrass Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists will host a free public forum Feb. 23 titled, “Finding real facts in an alternative fact world.”

A panel of local, regional and national professionals will examine the role of the news media and provide a better public understanding of how it works. The group also hopes to facilitate an ongoing conversation about the importance of a free press in a democracy. The event will be 6:30-8 p.m. in Room A of Central Library, 140 E. Main Street, Lexington.

Panelists include Jim Waters, newspaper columnist and president of the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, a free-market think tank; Ryan Craig, owner of The Todd County Standard, a weekly newspaper in Western Kentucky and president of the Kentucky Press Association; Tom Eblen, columnist and former managing editor of The Lexington Herald-Leader; Campbell Robertson, national correspondent for The New York Times; and Kathy Stone, assistant news director at television station WLEX-18; and

Moderating will be Ginny Whitehouse, Ph.D., a journalism professor at Eastern Kentucky University specializing in media literacy, ethics and law.

KY State of Education shows serious grading discrepancies by race

Kentucky Commissioner of Education Stephen Pruitt delivered his second annual “The State of P-12 Public Education in the Commonwealth of Kentucky” report today, making extensive and very candid comments about the serious achievement gap situation in the state.

I’ll be spending some time in this report, but I think many at the press conference were particularly struck by results of a new analysis of course grade awards versus performance on Kentucky’s various mathematics assessments. So, I am going to delve into that new research now.

To put it mildly, this new research was a major eye-opener. Aside from showing some very disturbing trends regarding differential course grading by race, the data undermines a long-held notion that course grades are likely to be the best predictor of college performance.

Let’s look at two of the eye-watering graphs in the new report.

Figure 1

Grade 8 Course Grades Vs. KPREP by Race

The graph in Figure 1 is based on a study of Grade 8 math course letter grades and KPREP math scores from 2012 to 2016, and is found on Page 6 in the report. It shows some pretty disappointing things are happening in Kentucky’s public school system.

Looking vertically up from the “A” grade point on the right side of the horizontal axis, we see an example of why the report says:

“For African American students whose average letter grade in their middle school math courses was an A, the chance of scoring proficient on state math tests was 25 percentage points lower than that of white students who also earned an A average.”

Clearly, less is being demanded of Kentucky’s blacks to earn an “A” grade in math class. Across Kentucky, teachers are setting a lower standard for these children of color to earn an “A.” Examination of the graph for other letter grades shows blacks are held to lower standards for every other grade from “B” even down to a “D” score, though the amount of performance difference for whites versus blacks does decline a bit as we move down the grading scale.

[Read more…]

Another reason why Kentucky needs a strong charter school bill

A new report from ProPublica provides dramatic evidence about a real threat to student success when only local school districts are allowed to authorize charter schools.

ProPublica’s article points out that in some areas of the country local districts are authorizing charter schools so the district can hide poor student performance and make its regular schools look better. The district authorizers are not holding the charters accountable. They are manipulating the process to make their regular schools look better.

ProPublica’s article includes a map that provides an additional warning for Kentucky. The map identifies school districts with more problematic alternative schools.

ProPublica Dropout Factory Warning National Map

Here is an enhanced blowup of the Kentucky section of the map.

ProPublica Dropout Factory Warning KY Blowup Map Enhanced

Notice that school district enrollment is identified by the size of the circle. The degree to which each district’s alternate schools appear problematic is identified by the shade of pink inside the circle, with darker shading indicating more issues of concern.

Unlike the vast majority of states, especially those east of the Mississippi River, Kentucky is covered border to border in these pink “measles.” Furthermore, while you need to look closely since most Kentucky districts are small, many of the state’s circles are in darker shades of pink, indicating ProPublica has a whole lot of concerns about many alternative schools here.

Keep in mind that Kentucky currently has no charter schools, so all of the high concern alternative programs in the Bluegrass State are being run directly by the school districts. This shows that such abuses are not unique to charter school states or charter schools, either. These problems are a feature of ineffective, if not outright inappropriate, motivations on the part of local public school districts.

ProPublica says this problem manifests itself in places like Florida’s Sunshine High School in the Orlando area. I confirmed with the Florida Department of Education that Sunshine High is indeed a district authorized charter school. In fact, virtually all of Florida’s charters are district authorized. So, while Florida has plenty of “measles” on the ProPublica map, this is actually a traditional school district problem because the authorizer of a charter school is supposed to be the first line of accountability for a charter school. Per ProPublica, that isn’t happening with district authorized charters in Florida.

By the way, if a Kentucky district brought in a separate ‘hidden dropouts’ charter school, that charter school’s performance would be separately reported, making statistics for the district’s regular schools look better, just like is happening in Florida. We don’t want that temptation here.

So, here are some messages for Kentucky legislators.


  • Our pending charter school legislation needs to insure districts can’t engage in such abuses with any charters established here.

  • It clearly would be much better for Kentucky to allow independent charter school authorizers who face no temptations to hide bad performance for school districts.

If Kentucky only allows local school districts to authorize charter schools, those ProPublica map measles – already far too numerous – are likely to expand even more in the Bluegrass State.

And, Kentucky’s kids will pay the price.

(Blog updated with minor wording changes and the blow up map, 21 Feb 17 at 7:38 pm)

News release: Groups stand together in support of robust charter-school policy

TFF-2016-Website-LogoFor Immediate Release: Tuesday, BIPPS LOGO
February 21, 2017                                                                    

Contact: Martin Cothran @ 859.329.1919, Jim Waters @  270.320.4376

(FRANKFORT, Ky.) — The Family Foundation of Kentucky and Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions have joined forces in calling for state lawmakers to seize the opportunity to pass the nation’s most robust charter-school law.

“Educational innovation is only possible if the conditions allow for it,” said Martin Cothran, senior policy analyst for The Family Foundation of Kentucky. “If a charter law does not allow for innovation, then there is likely to be no innovation.”

Charter schools are innovative public schools in which teachers and administrators are free of many of the regulations that tie the hands of capable educators in regular public schools and where a higher level of accomplishment is promised in exchange for the freedom to innovate.

A winning charter-school policy for Kentucky allows:

  • Authorizers beyond local school districts

For example, Rep. Phil Moffett’s House Bill 103 lets local school districts, mayors of Louisville and Lexington, public or private universities with accredited education colleges and Council on Postsecondary Education authorize the creation of charter schools. Only this freedom will ensure that these innovative schools are not hampered in their mission to provide families a quality education alternative.

  • An unbiased appeal opportunity before the Kentucky Board of Education

Charter-school applicants whose applications are denied by the aforementioned authorizers must have the possibility of another path by appeal to the state education board.

  • A robust process for alternative teacher certification.

Teacher certification requirements should allow for teachers to be trained outside the standard processes now available almost exclusively through teachers’ colleges. This would allow prospective teachers to gain exposure and expertise in content knowledge and innovative teaching methodologies unavailable in many existing teacher certification programs. One of the benefits of charters is their ability to offer innovative alternatives to establishment schools, a benefit that is made difficult to gain if educators are trained in the antiquated progressivist practices common in teachers’ colleges.

  • Charter schools in all public-school districts in Kentucky

Considering that 42 percent of Kentucky’s population lives in rural areas, we must ensure everyone –  from poor rural Kentuckians to minority students in our commonwealth’s urban, low-income neighborhoods –  the same equitable access to an excellent public education.

“A failure to allow for these freedoms could hamstring charters and result in schools no different than the failing schools to which they are intended as an alternative,” Cothran said. “Lawmakers should make sure they pass legislation that does not set up charters for failure, failure the educational establishment will use to prevent further change.”

Both organizations pledged to stand together and work toward bringing the hope and opportunity of a great education to the children and families of the commonwealth.

For comment and more information, contact Martin Cothran, senior policy analyst for The Family Foundation of Kentucky @ 859.329.1919 or Bluegrass Institute president Jim Waters @ 270.320.4376.

Value of early childhood education questioned again in yet another report

There is a big push in Kentucky to greatly expand early (preschool) child education.

That would be fine with me – if there was good evidence that these programs really create lasting improvement. Sadly, a lot of research shows that isn’t the case.

Just about every study of the federal Head Start Program shows that any benefits have faded away by the time students enter the third grade.

For example, a 2013 report on Head Start concluded:

“There was little evidence of systematic differences in children’s elementary school experiences through 3rd grade, between children provided access to Head Start and their counterparts in the control group.”

More recently, a study by Vanderbilt researchers of a Tennessee state-run preschool program (TN-VPK) came to the same conclusion. This study found:

“By the end of kindergarten, the control children had caught up to the TN‐VPK children and there were no longer significant differences between them on any achievement measures. The same result was obtained at the end of first grade using both composite achievement measures.”

And now, the Washington Post, hardly a bastion of conservative reporting, has a new report “Preschool can provide a boost, but the gains can fade surprisingly fast.”

The study referenced in the article comes from professors at the University of California and Duke. The authors write:

“Unfortunately, our investments in many early-childhood programs may be based on an inflated sense of their promise. Even our best efforts often produce only ephemeral gains.”

So, I have to caution Kentucky to go slow regardless of the considerable hype about preschool. Study after study seems to indicate that there simply isn’t much, if any, bang for the buck with these programs.

Washington state judge rules revamped charter school program IS constitutional!

A breaking story in Washington State has implications for pending charter school legislation in Kentucky. A Washington judge ruled yesterday that state’s revamped charter school laws are constitutional.

In 2015, in a move that currently concerns some Kentucky lawmakers, the Washington Supreme Court ruled that state’s charters were unconstitutional.

Now, it appears that the basic charter school principal is just fine in Washington; there just needed to be due attention to the funding process.

Senate Bill 1: Reservations and recommendations

The media is exploding with coverage of the passage of Senate Bill 1 out of the Kentucky Senate. But the coverage, including some of the headlines, leaves important questions unanswered.

For example, the Herald-Leader reports: “Kentucky Senate approves repeal of Common Core standards in schools.” That might not be true.

SB 1 does vaguely state, “In adopting the amendments to KRS 158.6453 contained in Section 3 of this Act, the General Assembly intends, among other actions, to repeal the common core standards.” But there’s no clear and outright mandate for such a repeal.

The bill does require a new process to review all standards and make recommendations for changes as deemed necessary. However, there’s nothing in the bill that directly repeals Common Core.

There also is no guarantee that the standards-review teams established by the bill will recommend any substantial changes to the existing cut-and-paste adoptions of Common Core in Kentucky’s current public school standards. The review process might lead to materially changed standards, or it might not.

Explicit, outright repeal and replacement with other existing, high quality standards – such as being contemplated in West Virginia – is not a feature of SB-1.

Whatever is being said about SB 1, it’s clear from this segment of Scott Sloan’s talk show about Common Core-based math instruction on Cincinnati’s 700 WLW-AM, which aired Friday, Feb. 17, 2017, that the war over Common Core continues.

There are other features of SB 1 that warrant attention:


  • It mandates a multi-team, multi-tier standards-review process heavily populated by experienced Kentucky public school teachers with appropriate subject matter expertise. This is a good stipulation, one notoriously absent in Common Core, which was totally developed by non-Kentuckians in work groups populated with very few teachers.
  • On the other hand, the required presence of Kentucky postsecondary educators on the review teams seems rather thin, especially so for those with specific subject matter expertise. This review process in SB 1 departs from the general outlines for standards panels that were established by an older Senate Bill 1 from the 2009 Regular Legislative Session.

That older bill required extensive, high-level coordination between the Kentucky Department of Education and the Council on Postsecondary Education to formulate the state’s new standards. Fortunately, the rather thin presence of postsecondary expertise in this year’s SB 1 is easy to fix. Hopefully, the Kentucky House will add more postsecondary subject-matter expertise to the standards-review teams.

  • The House should enhance review-team participation by business and industry experts and possibly other groups, as well. At present, this is only vaguely defined in the bill.
  • The House also should clarify that as legislatively established committees, the standards teams must comply with the state’s open-meetings and open-records laws. The Common Core process was completely opaque and that could have hidden problems that might have been handled better in an open forum.

Concerning the host of other changes contained in SB 1, including significant revisions to the commonwealth’s assessment and accountability program, it will take more time to determine how well this bill addresses key policy provisions.

However, one thing is certain: while some are cheering the current SB 1 as perhaps the greatest piece of education legislation since the passage of the Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990, history shows us it’s premature to make such judgements.

Similar joyous claims were made following the passage of the SB 1 from 2009, but history tells us that act suffered in actual implementation in many ways:


  • The standards-review teams never operated as the law intended. In fact, the law never sanctioned the entire process of adoption of out-of-state standards created in ways not subject to Kentucky’s open-meetings and open-records statutes. This is undoubtedly why the new SB 1 requires a review of the processes actually used to create the new standards by a legislatively appointed team. Clearly, legislators have no intention of being blindsided by another non-transparent Common-Core-like series of events.
  • The standards as well as the assessment and accountability process implemented following SB 1 in 2009 proved disappointing. Thus, the entire process is now undergoing changes, which will be directed in part by the SB 1 passed by the Kentucky Senate on Friday.

While we’re hopeful extra eyes in the Kentucky House will make this bill stronger, it’s way too early to pat ourselves on the back. After all, Kentucky is currently witnessing the demise of its third assessment and accountability program to come down the pike since KERA’s passage in 1990.

Based on the commonwealth’s education history to date, we clearly need to stay eyes open and alert as Kentucky prepares to launch its fourth attempt to get education right.

The time for cheering is several years down the road, at least.

Legal Experts: Strong Kentucky Charter School Bill Meets Constitutional Muster

It seems some legal questions have been raised about Kentucky’s currently leading charter school bill, House Bill 103.

Now, the Center for Education Reform reports a top legal team has examined these questions. According to:

CER Says Strong KY Charter Bill is Constitutional

You can read the full news release here, and the legal report is available here.

So, Kentucky should press forward with HB 103. Our students deserve the option of strong and vibrant charter schools.

Jefferson County Schools in Serious Trouble

Education Commissioner orders full audit of system – State takeover could result

“I have determined that there is a presence of critically ineffective or inefficient management in the JCPS and accordingly, a comprehensive management audit of the governance and administration of JCPS is required pursuant to KRS 158.785 (2) and 703 KAR 3:205.”

Commissioner Stephen Pruitt in letter to Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS) superintendent Donna Hargens advising the Kentucky Department of Education is launching a full Management Audit of that school district.

Pruitt’s letter lists 32 major and minor findings that collectively rise to the level of a serious deficiency.

Read more about this dramatic development in WDRB’s article, which contains a copy of the letter.

It’s no wonder Jefferson County residents are screaming for school choice.